In the dangerous and demanding world of international ski jumping, each competitor finds his mind riveted on two distant goals. One, obviously, is to jump farther than anyone else. This he may do. The other is to make the perfect jump, to attain that unwavering symmetry of style which will receive the maximum score from the five judges. This, by all the power of logic and the traditions of the sport, he may not do. For no man can be expected to achieve perfection while hurtling off an icy platform at 60 mph to land some 100 yards away, subject en route to all the vagaries of wind, fog, his own fear and the normal prejudices of the presiding judges. And, indeed, no man ever had achieved perfection until one year ago when Norway's Toralf Engan executed a leap of such artistry and power that the astounded judges gave him the highest score recorded in modern jumping history. Everyone conceded this was, indeed, the ultimate.
In his search for perfection, Engan had to overcome a crippling case of nerves while toughening his muscles until both mind and body became as hard as his hickory skis. Along the way he won an unprecedented string of championships and restored to his country the pre-eminence in jumping which had been lost to the Finns 10 years ago. Now, because of his flawless skill, because of the fierce concentration born of a score of years pursuing that perfect jump, Toralf Engan is an overwhelming favorite to win both the special jumping events at the Innsbruck Olympics.
In 1962 Engan took the almost impossible total of 24 out of 27 meets, including the world championship at Zakopane, Poland. Last year he compiled 17 victories, including an all-important triumph over East Germany's 1960 Olympic champion, Helmut Recknagel, on Innsbruck's Bergisel Hill, where the gold medal will be contested.
Because of Engan, Norwegians feel a renewed burst of national pride. There are 10,000 ski jumps of all sizes in Norway and all in good use. "Every time a small boy sets out for a small jump, he is a small Engan," says one Norwegian. Girls smother their bedroom walls with his pictures. Anything Engan does becomes news. His biography, On the Top, became a bestseller. Crowds turn out to watch him practice on the world-famous Holmenkollen jump at Oslo, even in the freezing night that makes the city glitter like an open jewel box.
January 27, 1964
Norway's national hero is 27 years old, a solid, 5-foot 6-inch, 143-pound package of tightly controlled emotion. He was born and lives in Holonda, a small, pleasant, remote rural village near Trondheim. Engan works in Trondheim for a sports equipment dealer and is informally engaged to a blonde clothing-store clerk named Elin Halvorsen. "I will marry," he says, "when I have the time."
Toralf began to ski in the woods around home at 3. By 7 he was jumping on skis left behind by the German army of occupation. When his father hit it lucky in a lottery, he bought Toralf his second pair of skis, and at 13 Toralf won the county championship. In 1955 he went off the big Holmenkollen Hill and won the national junior championship. By all outward indications, he should have then leaped right on to bigger prizes. But Norway's vast army of jumping experts, including the coaches in Engan's own ski club, dismissed him as a future champion because of his painfully obvious nerves. Jumpers have a deep devil inside that drives them to a kind of ice-cold fury before a start. Engan had this devil, but he was unable to control it. Before every meet he threw up his breakfast. His concentration was poor, his mind so tense and preoccupied that his jumps were sloppy. Furthermore, under the often haphazard training provided by his ski club coaches, Engan simply was not physically strong enough.
"When I was with the group," he explains, "and followed the basic training program, I found that after some events I felt weak. I told the trainers that I wanted to coach myself and try my own methods."
For two years Engan stopped jumping and put himself on a punishing program of muscle-building that he still follows. In the summer he plays soccer and dives from a springboard. All year round, four or five times a week, he does deep knee bends with a 100-pound weight across his shoulders. With a 30-pound sack of sand on his back, he hops on alternate feet up stadium steps, then jumps, feet together, over 3-foot-7-inch-high hurdles. His legs became so powerful that now, from a standing position, he can broad-jump 9 feet and high-jump 4½ feet. "Unlike most Norwegians," says a countryman, "Toralf has discipline."
As he whipped his body into shape Engan also polished his jumping technique, adopting the winning style of the Finns. From the top of a big hill like the Bergisel or the Holmenkollen, the inrun drops some 280 feet, a narrow, 42-degree pitch of crusty snow that has been watered and packed into sheer glaze ice. Engan began to master the frightening business of the quick push-step onto the inrun, the tight crouch with body curled against his knees as he gathered speed for the mile-a-minute takeoff. As he flashed off the lip, he learned to throw his body far forward, his back slightly bent in the shape of an airplane wing section. As he hurtled outward, Engan's nose came to within mere inches of his ski tips, his arms at his sides so his hands could guide his flight like the ailerons of a plane. Just as important, he began to get real power in his takeoff. Today his extreme push off the lip is so strong that he may at any time overjump the steep landing slope on any hill, and to protect himself he frequently has to step onto the inrun farther down than the normal starting point.
In the discipline of physical training Engan also developed the mental muscle to hold his nerves in check. He has learned to withdraw into himself completely before a meet. In the last hours before a jump he spends 30 minutes silently waxing his skis. Then he inspects his boots and bindings, and meticulously goes over the jump in his mind. "I am criticized," he says, "because I don't talk to others before jumping, but I am using these things to help me concentrate. I try to control my body right down to my feet. I have been teaching myself this since I was 15."
By 1959, though Engan had trained hard enough to be considered one of the top half a dozen jumpers in Norway, he still was not up to Olympic standards. After the tryouts for the 1960 team that went to Squaw Valley he was left off the squad. At the time it was reported that he was sick and unable to travel. However, Thorleif Schjelderup, once Engan's coach, emphatically believes it was still nerves, not physical sickness, that kept Engan off the 1960 Olympic team. But Engan himself demurs. "When we competed I just wasn't good enough."
Within a year, however, his Spartan program of mind and muscle training took hold, and Engan was, suddenly, good enough for anybody. In 1961 he won five of 10 meets, and in late March of 1962, after 22 more victories, he soared off the Holmenkollen Hill to win the oldest and, Olympics aside, most prestigious prize in winter sport. Still, Engan was dissatisfied. In his mind, always dangling just out of reach, he saw the image of the perfect jump. Before a meet in Falun, Sweden only a year ago, he said, "Every time I jump there is a failure. On some jumps the only thing I have done wrong is move a hand. When I make the good jump I am like an airplane, gliding with everything under control, completely safe, and with not a note of fear. But on the day when I make the perfect jump I will spring like a gazelle, float through the air and land as light as a feather."
Then, amazingly, at Falun he made it, the perfect jump shown at right, sailing 272 feet to break the hill record. He achieved a flight of sheer beauty, his arms pinned to his sides, his landing as elegant as a dancer's.
Even with the perfect jump behind him, however, Engan will still admit to fears sharp enough to occasionally penetrate his wall of will. "There are only two things that I am afraid of on the hill," he says. "One is fog. Sometimes I can see only 30 feet in front of me and 20 down the slope. It must be the same feeling a flyer feels when he is piloting a plane through a thick cloud. I have to calculate all the way and hope for the best."
The other fear is wind. "Very often up in the hills it blows hard. This is more dangerous than fog, and you have to maneuver with your hands to keep in line with the hill. You can steer like an aircraft, waving the hands and moving the skis up and down." Jumpers often have a distinct, but false, impression that they are going to land in the crowd.
Curiously, for a man who compares his jumps to airplanes and who has come closer to flying than most men since Icarus, Engan is afraid of traveling by plane. He goes to extraordinary lengths to drive to competitions in his black Volkswagen. But even driving on the road can fill him with subliminal dread.
"Sometimes when I have been pumped out by a competition and have driven hundreds of miles home, I dream. I am driving my car too fast. Just as I am about to crash, I wake in a cold sweat, sitting up gripping the bottom of my bed. Then I laugh. I am safe."
In Engan's tightrope style, a jumping theory translated into astonishing reality, one slip means failure. In the 1963 Norwegian national championships, a few weeks after his perfect jump, he did slip, his fourth fall in 400 jumps. His tremendous spring carried him four yards beyond the hill record of 263 feet for a jarring landing on unprepared snow. Shortly thereafter, weakened by an attack of flu, and just possibly by a last, lingering case of nerves ("At the top of the jump, I listen to the whole crowd, knowing that they are expecting everything of me"), he fell again in an attempt to win his second successive Holmenkollen title. Norway was astounded, but not downcast, since the winner was Engan's countryman, Torbjorn Yggeseth. But Norway—in fact, the whole ski-jumping world—was even more astounded by the second and fourth finishers in the 1963 Holmenkollen: John Balfanz of Minneapolis, and Gene Kotlarek of Duluth.
Balfanz was the first American ever to place in a major European jump. Kotlarek was only a fraction of a point out of third. And they achieved these unprecedented results with such authority and poise that they must—along with Yggeseth, Recknagel, Veikko Kankkonen of Finland, and perhaps one of the fast-improving Russians—be considered the main threats to Engan on the Bergisel hill.
Engan, however, is unconcerned with any single rival, regardless of nationality. His one thought is to prove, finally, that he is the world's premier jumper, and he is convinced that he will succeed. Indeed, he contemplates the Olympic competition with obvious delight. "I feel more supple," he says, "and stronger in the legs. My bad form at the end of last season has turned me into an attacker rather than the defender. I have to mount the throne again. This goads me to extra effort."
To insure the success of that effort, he returned last spring and summer to his relentless training schedule. He also honed his balance by springboard diving and walking a tightwire. Then, when the early snow fell in the mountains around Trondheim, he was the first man out with skis. "It was good to feel snow under them," he says. "But I did not jump before December. My training program was more important." During the past few weeks, however, he has been jumping with all his former zest and precision. In his mind, too, he is confident and at ease.
"I honestly feel more relaxed, as if I have come of age," he says. "I want to be back in the position I was before Holmenkollen and I think my frame of mind today gives me the necessary inner strength to do it. I'm more optimistic than ever before."
"If Engan succeeds on a hill," Coach Schjelderup says, "the others are just competing there for second place. Only his nerves can beat him."
Engan feels now that nothing can beat him. "I have locked my mind and I have conquered my nerves," he says. "Only after the last jump of a competition I turn a lock to unfree my mind. Again, I became an ordinary man."